Ukraine

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 30th April 2008.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 3:11 pm, 30th April 2008

It gives me great pleasure to follow contributions from three such distinguished and experienced parliamentarians. I calculate that they have no less than seven decades of parliamentary experience between them, which almost—I stress, almost—makes me feel young again. I pay tribute to all three of them. Mr. Spring gave a measured and comprehensive overview of the issues facing Ukraine. We then had a clarion call for democracy from my right hon. Friend Mr. George, who, if anything, underplayed his role as the OSCE's chief observer in the elections some years ago. His role in Ukraine was crucial, and his keen observation and willingness to speak the truth will be credited there for many decades to come.

I am also grateful to be following Simon Hughes, because I want to start where he did by stressing some of the human links between our two countries. He mentioned football, and I first became aware of Ukraine as a result of playing football. I am the grandson of an Irish Catholic migrant to Yorkshire and I remember playing with, and occasionally against, the grandsons of Ukrainian migrants to Yorkshire—as I recall, they did not take any prisoners on the football field. That was my first link to Ukraine and the first time that I became aware of the country.

As the years went by, and the iron curtain fell, I made friends and acquaintances among younger members of the Ukrainian community, some of whom had perhaps come to the west for the first time. When the Orange revolution happened, some of them contacted me in Parliament and asked what Parliament was doing about it. At that stage, the all-party group was not very active, but it was one of those moments in history when there was only one side to be on—the side of counting votes properly and having a proper democratic election. Now, the all-party group has links with politicians of all shades of opinion in Ukraine, and we are delighted to have members of the Tymoshenko bloc and the Party of the Regions with us today.

The Orange revolution was a pivotal moment in Ukrainian democracy. What a joy it was to be alive in Ukraine after that—everything seemed to go right. Not only was there an Orange revolution, but Ukraine qualified for the football World cup for the first time, economic growth took off and the country had not just one, but two world heavyweight boxing champions. It even won the Eurovision song contest, and we in Britain know how hard that is. Obviously, there was bound to be a bit of a reaction after such a honeymoon period.

As other hon. Members and acting members of the all-party group have said, we in Parliament try to do our bit. We are looking forward to hosting President Yushchenko and the Holodomor exhibition in Parliament in a couple of weeks, and there will also be the Inter-Parliamentary Union visit. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey was right to stress the rich variety of organisations in Britain promoting links between Ukraine and Britain. The British Ukrainian Society, which he leads so ably, has taken such activities to a new level in the past year. Similarly, the Ukrainian-British City Club in London brings together young professionals. That highlights what a great asset young Ukrainian professionals in London will be to Ukraine in the years ahead.

I could discuss many of the current issues that have been touched on and which are being fiercely debated in the Rada. As has been said, there is a debate about whether Ukraine should stick with and strengthen its presidential system of government or move to a more parliamentary system. There are debates about the economy, with the Rada ratifying one of the 60 elements that are needed for full World Trade Organisation ratification to take place—the debate on the WTO will probably last as long as our recent debates about the EU. There is also a debate about inflation, which is now touching 30 per cent, and measures have had to be taken in recent weeks to bring it down. Finally, there is the very important debate about NATO, which has been touched on.

I thought, however, that I would make four more general, but crucial points about the future of Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South concentrated on the development of democracy and referred to the OSCE's judgement that the most recent elections had pretty much met almost the highest standards that one could expect of such elections. Friends of Ukraine in Britain are pleased that those democratic standards are being met, although we would rather that Ukraine reached the point where it did not have to prove its democratic standards by having a general election every six months. It is good that a Government have been formed, and I hope that there will now be a period of stability. The fundamental point, which more than one hon. Member has touched on, is that if democracy and much-needed progress in the judicial system—the country needs to go much further in establishing the rule of law—can take hold, Ukraine will have a competitive edge, particularly in attracting investment. As the hon. Member for West Suffolk said, the rule of law, democracy and a free media are not nearly as developed in many of Ukraine's neighbours.

One of the advantages of having frequent elections as part of the democratic process in a young democracy is that the different parties have observed those elections in different regions of the country. This has been the first time that many young people who have supported a political party avidly enough to want to observe the elections have been able to do so. This is the first time, for example, that people from Donetsk have been to the west of Ukraine and vice versa and have taken part in electoral activity as part of civil society. Such things are binding the country together again and giving people a different view. It is also encouraging that although the east of the country generally votes one way and the west votes another, that is by no means monolithic now, and people in both the east and the west are voting against that trend. That can only strengthen democracy in Ukraine.

Finally on democracy, it is significant that the Rada is considering a law on the role of the Opposition. That was highlighted at the Foreign Office conference at Wilton Park, which many Ukrainian parliamentarians took part in, and which I was privileged to go along to for a little while. It took our Parliament centuries to appreciate such things. Hard though it is for me as a Labour politician to admit this, there will be a Conservative Government one day, and Conservative Ministers will have the cars and give the statements—I confidently predict that. It is part of the practice of a mature democracy that we treat others as we would want to be treated if we were in the same circumstances. Things such as the development of Short money and respect for the role of the Opposition are very important, and Ukraine is rapidly developing that culture.

Just a few weeks ago there was a conference in London to promote investment in Euro 2012. It was extremely moving that the shadow Foreign Minister, a member of the party of the Regions, gave a speech, supported by all his colleagues from the different parties in Ukraine, in which he said that the issue was so important that everyone needed to unite behind it, and make 2012 a success. That is my second point. Many hon. Members have mentioned 2012, but it is well worth mentioning that just as we must absolutely get the Olympics right, for the sake of the United Kingdom's reputation, equally Ukraine, together with Poland, must make sure that 2012 works well. There are reasons for concern at the moment. Michel Platini of UEFA has expressed some concern, and Rada members of all parties, and, indeed, the mayors of the host cities, are all keen to get the infrastructure in place. There may be—I know there will be—points of co-operation between London and Kiev when we are both at the centre of the sporting world in 2012; and reputation, so my friends in investment banks tell me, is the thing above all that determines investment. Ukraine's reputation is on the line in 2012 and I am sure the nation will rise to the challenge, but it cannot be complacent.

Thirdly, there is the question of relations with Russia. In recent weeks there have been encouraging signs that, despite strong rhetoric from both sides, both nations are capable of doing deals, when necessary. Earlier this week the Russian and Ukrainian Prime Ministers had important talks. Kommersant reported:

"The decision was made to recommend that Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukrainy 'conclude a long-term agreement on the delivery of gas to Ukraine and its transit through it'."

In the European Union, where a quarter of gas supplies come by such a route, that will be welcome. The Ukrainian Prime Minister was reported on Ukrainian news as saying that the two countries have prepared a plan for developing co-operation in ten priority areas, and the Russian Prime Minister described the work of the Ukrainian-Russian intergovernmental commission as sufficiently efficient—quite a phrase in itself. Those reports show that business can be done by the two nations.

As other hon. Members have done, I want to say a word about Ukraine's European Union ambitions. It is perhaps one of the prime purposes of the all-party group to do a bit to advance those ambitions. There are two ways of thinking about the matter. Such ambitions can present a tremendous opportunity for Ukraine, and particularly its young people, in travel and business. However, what Ukraine can do for Europe is also important, as other hon. Members have said. Increasingly, Ukraine is an important actor in the region, in all sorts of discussions on issues including Moldova. Ukraine is a country, as has been said, with a rich history, and there is debate there about how much it should look to the future and how much it needs to come to terms with its history, including such events as the famine. That debate is for Ukrainians to have. However, with its rich history, and given the indisputable claim that Ukraine is a European nation with a place in the history of the continent and which can draw on that history and on the vitality of its young people, it will, before too long, take its place as part of the European Union.